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Letter of the week: This was always the plan

A selection of the best letters received from our readers this week. Email letters@newstatesman.co.uk to have your thoughts voiced in the New Statesman magazine.

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Stephen Bush seems to point to civil servants and scientific advisers for what are, in effect, political decisions (Politics, 27 March).

Civil servants use evidence to indicate different outcomes. These are presented to politicians, who make choices reflecting their ideological stances. At the outset, this government was faced with two alternatives: let the virus run its course – disastrous for the NHS – or cap the peak and delay the epidemic through social intervention – disastrous for the economy.

Initially, the first option was seen as less disruptive. As more evidence emerged, the predictive models indicated that the latter option was preferable to give the woefully underfunded and underprepared NHS a chance to free up beds, build up intensive care services and acquire the necessary equipment.

To suggest that this was “ripping up Plan A and adopting measures that government officials had initially derided” gives the wrong impression of the policy process.

Dorothy Jerrome
Via email

The science bit

I am concerned about the lack of influence science has on public thinking. I was reading the excellent article by Ross Douthat (“The crisis of the liberal zombie order”, 20 March) when I came across an extraordinary comment: “The more apocalyptic projections for climate crisis could indeed bring about the end of liberal decadence in fire and flood. But the less apocalyptic possibilities… suggest a future in which climate change is mostly a manageable burden for wealthy countries, imposing discomfort and requiring adaptation.”

This analysis is not something I have seen agreed in the scientific world. If he can make unfounded suppositions about something as crucial as climate change, how much of the rest of his article is also based on suppositions?

John Palfreyman
Coupar Angus, Perth and Kinross

Without wisdom

Jason Cowley writes that Boris Johnson is clever but unserious and that Johnson dreams of being Churchill (Editor’s Note, 27 March). I have recently been reading about a long-ignored MP, who was asked in the hustings of 1922 if he thought Churchill was responsible for the Mesopotamia gamble. He replied that he did not want to take away anything from Churchill’s reputation for cleverness and ability – but cleverness without wisdom was about the most dangerous quality a politician could have.  

AB Whyte
Forfar, Angus

At the moment we are looking for any leadership in a crisis. Boris Johnson can get away with it by restraining his jokes and his smirk – but the comparison with 1940 is more damaging than Jason Cowley suggests. Not only was Churchill a natural orator with a statesmanlike gravitas, but he spoke to a Britain that was united by an enemy at the gates. He still faced persistent opposition, not least from his own back benches.

Today, a sense of practical community will struggle to put down deep roots when it’s our patriotic duty to stay isolated at home. When this crisis ends, the country will be querulous and disunited, a challenge for any leader.

Quentin Mitchell
Whitley Bay, Tyne and Wear

Payback time

Jonathan Powell (“The state transformed”, 27 March) points to the impending deficit and the need to pay it back through higher taxes in future. The design of this fiscal recovery will be a test of what your leader describes as “the rebirth of Tory pragmatism”. Given that the additional borrowing caused by Covid-19 is a one-off event, there is a strong case for a one-off wealth tax rather than another decade of austerity. It is not too soon for policymakers to turn their minds to the design of such a policy.

David Griffiths
Huddersfield, West Yorkshire

Charles Leggatt is right to start a discussion about how public finances could be restored when we emerge from the current crisis (Correspondence, 27 March). It might take more than a one-off wealth tax, though. I’d like to suggest that we start means testing the state pension. Many of my generation, myself included, are fortunate to have good occupational pensions from the days when cradle-to-grave employment was common. I’m sure we can survive perfectly well without receiving a financial bonus. The money should go to those who need it.

Mike Cassels
Sheffield

Your leader (“The return of the protective state”, 27 March), rightly praises the decisive actions taken by Rishi Sunak. One senses that he is man of remarkable self-confidence. In addition, it was paradoxically advantageous that he was new to the job. It is unlikely that Sajid Javid, with his neoliberal ideological baggage, could have taken the same positive economic action.

Michael Meadowcroft
Leeds

Mystery shoppers

On the same day that Jason Cowley found people “politely keeping their distance” in Saffron Walden (Editor’s Note, 27 March), in suburban Surrey local supermarkets offered close encounters of the dangerous kind. The situation in shops has changed in the past few days, however. Our local supermarket has introduced controlled numbers. This is crucial because websites are too overloaded to allow online delivery. To qualify for supermarket deliveries, we had to register at gov.uk. Even though we are ancient, we did not qualify. So we continue going to the shops. Like the availability of testing, PPE and ventilators, shouldn’t such matters have been organised much earlier?     

David Murray
Wallington, Greater London

No logos?

Colin Lomas’s letter is totally confused (Correspondence, 27 March). I certainly do not live in the 11th century. I do not go on arguing about minute differences in a concept that does not make sense. Religions do not just inhabit a world of “mythos” – they make moral claims in the world of “logos”; these claims are often deplorable. Either Lomas is too ignorant to recognise this fact or he wilfully ignores it.

Edward Greenwood,
Honorary Research Fellow,
University of Kent, Canterbury

As a former Catholic and full- time agnostic I’ve found the continuing debate on God in the NS Correspondence pages more than a little amusing.

My Irish grandmother might have commented: “Sure ’tis all me arse and Peggy Martin, as much use as a bottle of smoke.”

Could we not agree with Iris DeMent, the great American folk singer, that we should just “Let the Mystery Be”? 

Mike Harding
Via email

Sugar-coating

Brian Lawrence claims that, for his generation, born in the early 1950s, “polio, smallpox and tuberculosis had been eradicated, at least from the developed world”  (Correspondence, 27 March).

His 1950s was different from mine. I remember queuing on a slush-covered pavement outside the doctor’s for polio and smallpox vaccinations during a dual outbreak. Later, in a 1962 polio outbreak, our class was much relieved to find that the new polio vaccine was administered on sugar cubes. Meanwhile, my wife spent several years in the early 1950s in a children’s hospital, being treated for tuberculosis. Clearly Mr Lawrence’s “developed world” didn’t extend to south Wales or Staffordshire.

John Young
Usk, Monmouthshire

All about Eve

Julian Baggini raises some fundamental questions about public services (Observations, 27 March). In The Living Soil (1943) Eve Balfour understood the damage that agrochemicals were doing to the soil and the nutritional content of our food.She proposed that the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture should be joined: food security and quality, and the nation’s health are public matters. She was ignored – but perhaps the time for her idea has come.

Marianne Hughes
Edinburgh

Words of the war

I’ve been affected by the recent quotes from Shakespeare (Correspondence, 27 March). And in January, Andrew Glazzard’s article on HG Wells prompted me to look up the closing lines from War of the Worlds and I’ve been haunted by them ever since: “Once they had breathed our air, germs, which no longer affect us, began to kill them. The end came swiftly. All over the world, their machines began to stop and fall.” It would be a comfort to think, for the planet’s sake, that some of the invasive aspects of our dominating technologies will “stop and fall” beyond the conclusion of the immediate human crisis.

Graham Johnston
Via email

Working the shift

Global politics will certainly not be the same after Covid-19, but in affording climate change only a passing mention, Nick Timothy underestimates the development most likely to challenge the current order (“The great coming apart”, 27 March). The stress on water and food supplies, rising sea levels and extreme weather will undermine social and economic structures. The shift towards a world “more local and communal, more self-reliant and resilient” can only be achieved if we adopt radically different policies.

David Howard
Church Stretton, Shropshire

Rainbow nation

I wish David Rimmer well as he works his way through the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanacks – he has the right frame of mind (Correspondence, 27 March). I was also glad to see Alice O’Keeffe’s new column, not least as we’ve just named our month-old daughter Alice. Forget reading about cricket – with a newborn baby and a toddler in tow, our greatest achievement this week will be painting a rainbow to put in our front window, like children have been doing across the country.
Louisa King
Via email

Park life

Instead of meeting an old friend in Wetherspoons, this week he intelligently suggested that we should rendezvous for a picnic in a local park because “we can use our cars and bikes for exercise”.

Paul Thomson
Knutsford, Cheshire

We reserve the right to edit letters

This article appears in the 03 April 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special

Heston Blumenthal: “People have thought I am loopy mad”

The celebrity chef on the moon landings, Greek philosophers and getting angry with his phone. 

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Heston Blumenthal was born in London in 1966. He is the proprietor of the Fat Duck in Berkshire, one of five UK restaurants with three Michelin stars. His inventions include the recipe for triple-cooked chips.

What’s your earliest memory?

Watching the moon landing on TV at two or three years old. I would never have believed that one day my food, in tins, would go up into space on a rocket.

Who are your heroes?

Joseph Campbell came up with the idea of the “hero’s journey”, a pattern that exists in the greatest stories of all time, from the Bible to Harry Potter. So I’m my own hero, as much as everyone else is their own.

What book last changed your thinking?

Inner Engineering by the yogi Sadhguru. He’s like the modern-day Indian Jesus.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Anaximander, the ancient Greek philosopher, was the first person on record to look up at the sky and think, “Maybe the stars aren’t moving, maybe it’s the planet.” He wasn’t obviously political, but, like Isaac Newton or Charles Darwin, he had a following and generated the potential for change. That’s political to me. 

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The evolution of the senses and our relationship with the food we cook and eat. Why does the shape of a word change the perception of something that you eat while you look at it? How can the music that you listen to change the speed at which you eat? 

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’d like to go back and meet Leonardo da Vinci because I haven’t found any evidence of his relationship with food. I’d like to ask him about that, but I don’t want to be stuck there. Maybe just for a weekend break.   

What TV show could you not live without?

I recently discovered See, about a tribe of people who have lost their sight. It’s a very clever idea, with lots of tapping going on. Having not watched TV in ten years, I got through six episodes in a week.

Who would paint your portrait?

Vincent van Gogh. He wasn’t understood. In my career there have been times when I’ve tried to make myself understood and people have thought I am loopy mad.

What’s your theme tune?

A friend of mine sent me a T-shirt, and on the back of it are lyrics from “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen: “I’m travelling at the speed of light.” That’s me, but I need to learn to slow down in order to talk with more clarity. My brain works at a speed that other people’s don’t.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“Rome wasn’t built in a day.” I’m working on it.

What single thing would make your life better?

Not having a phone. I used to get really angry with my phone – I’ve thrown one in a pond, one in a river. But, as I’ve learnt from Plato, it’s my relationship with it rather than the object itself that is the problem. 

When were you happiest?

In the future. I’ve had increasingly more moments of happiness, but I know I always have the potential to be happier.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

A DJ. I love music. I’m obsessed with how the evolution of music has mirrored the evolution of cooking. And I have an ear! I can’t write music but I can imagine it. 

Are we all doomed?

If you don’t value death, then you can’t give value to life. 

This article appears in the 03 April 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special

From fry-ups to one-touch virtuosos: all the ways football has changed for the better

Before games, they would have steak and chips. And, of course, smoke like chimneys.

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The lack of football makes me think nostalgically of the good times, the nice times, not horrid things such as the rise of the agent, boo, making millions for doing eff all. So for my last appearance of the season I would like to consider the best things that have happened in football. Oh, the changes I have seen…

I was born in 1936, a year that the first division was won by Man City and the FA Cup by Arsenal, so nothing different there really. The Top Teams are still the Top Teams.

But my goodness, the way the game itself has changed during my lifetime, who would have believed it would be so different? Not fundamentally, because it is the same sport, with 11 players trying to get a ball in the net. Someone going back now and watching a prewar game would find it easy to follow what was going on, and admire the skills, just as someone born in 1936, such as, well, moi, can understand and appreciate what is going on today… most of the time

There are have been rule changes – messing around with offside and substitutes – and the positions in which players play have got different names, but really a centre back is still a centre half and a striker is still a centre forward.

But let me count the ways in which I think football has changed for the better. 

Boots. I have hanging beside me on my bookshelves a pair of boots from the 1930s. They are brand new, never used, and underneath you can read THE ALEX JAMES.

He of course, as all fools and fans know, was a Scottish star at Arsenal, helping them to win six trophies in the Thirties. He was known for his baggy shorts, under which he wore long johns to keep himself warm, as he had awful rheumatism. The interesting point about his name being on these ancient boots is that people today think that famous players doing advertising began with David Beckham. It has been going for well over 100 years, since they all drank Bovril. These 1930s boots are exactly the same as the ones I played with in the 1940s and 1950s – solid leather, high on the ankles, with toecaps the texture of steel. They weighed a ton, so walking in them if you were a skinny kid, as I was, was agony. Thank God for modern light boots, which weigh and feel no heavier than slippers.

Balls. They were made of leather, in panels, stitched together in patches. At this time of the year they were double the weight in the rain and the mud so it was like kicking a cannonball. Again, hurrah for modern footballs, which are much lighter, rounder, and don’t hold water.

Pitches. In winter there was no grass, just mud and puddles – something akin to a quagmire. I think in many ways the modern pitch is probably the single best improvement in my lifetime. All the other advances rely on the pitch.

Diet and Health. Players did have training in the old days, and work on formations, practise free kicks and corners, work in the gym when the pitch was impossible, but then they went to the pub or the caff and had a fry-up and ten pints. Before games, they would have steak and chips. And, of course, smoke like chimneys. Now all players are faster, leaner, their bodies honed, constantly checked and monitored. 

Technique. Goodness, the change is miraculous. Players’ control of the ball is instant, incredible, one touch, mastering the ball from any and every angle. I used to spend hours trying to control a ball like my heroes by waiting for it to come down and then trapping it under my boot. Even if you did it properly, you got knocked over. Today they are magicians. 

Foreign Players. In the old days, foreigners meant Scots. Players from abroad now dominate most Prem teams and have been responsible for so much that is good. They had lightweight boots before we did, took dieting seriously and brought different cultures 
With those happy thoughts, see you next season. 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 03 April 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special

As a parent there is nothing I fear more than being stuck indoors, walls closing around me

There’s only one thing I want to do, and that is to be outside.

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Week one, Monday. (Although as one of the kids points out: “it doesn’t really matter any more, they’re all just days”.) The internet is overflowing with activities. I have spent the weekend scrolling through online art classes, sing-a-longs, free gigs from international pop stars, famous actors reading stories. 

I don’t want to do any of them. It is all so well-meaning but feels unseemly, somehow, like going for someone’s job before their funeral. I’m not ready to start pretending I know what to do next. Other parents keep posting colour-coded timetables. I swear to myself that whatever we do for the coming months is not going to involve colour coding; I don’t want our home to become an institution. 

There’s only one thing I want to do, and that is to be outside. Perhaps it’s the looming threat of actual, house-bound lockdown (which is, in fact, announced later that evening), but I need to feel free. As a parent there is nothing I fear more than being stuck indoors, walls closing in around me. That’s how I felt when Moe was tiny and Larry was a toddler and we still lived in London, when the clouds gathered in my brain, blocking out every chink of light.  The thought of going back to that dark, shut-in place scares me more than anything, so right now I need air and space and green.

There is a spot just a short drive up the road where I  know nobody will be. My sons and I pile into the van, and pile out in a wide empty field bordered by woodland. This is a special place we come to at weekends sometimes, to make fires and dens. We always feel good here, and it’s particularly glorious today. The woods are carpeted with delicate white anemones, and the trees are still bare but with that tantalising hint of green, leaf-buds about to burst. It’s clear and sunny, with a biting chill in the shade.

The boys set up the stumps for their everlasting cricket match, and I lie on my back and look up at the sky. I’m nursing a hollow feeling, the aftermath of wave after wave of loss hitting me last night. There seemed to be no end to the no-mores: no cuppas with friends; no time to work; no holidays, no day trips; no hugs with Mum, or visits to my sister, my nephew and niece. It’s unimaginable, but  I don’t have to imagine: it’s here. This is it, now. We are on our own. I think about Mum, who is self-isolating in her flat just a few miles away. I have been trying to be supportive, but it’s not easy. She has been taking her stress out on me, and I currently can’t bear that extra weight. My kids’ worlds have fallen apart overnight, and they need all my energy.

But the blue spring sky is big enough to absorb all this, and more. I can feel it holding me, holding all of us. We are so incredibly lucky. We are healthy, at least for now. We have a place to live. Husband and I both still have some income. We are all four together, and all we have to do now is take care of each other, one day, one minute, one second at a time.

The boys and I collect wood. We make a special, solemn fire, carefully sawing the sticks and stacking them in layers. I give them both pieces of paper and suggest that they write down a few of the things they are going to miss, some people they want to send love to, and any ideas they have for how they’d like to spend this special, different time. We light the fire and watch the flames spread.

Larry reads out his papers: “I’m going to miss Belgian chips. And my friends. And Granny. I’m looking forward to maxing and relaxing.”

Moe is going to miss Granny, too. He’s going to miss his school friends, and he wants to spend more time playing games on the internet (that is one wish I’m pretty certain will come true).

We put our papers into the fire, and watch them shrivel to ash and fly up in smoke. That’s how solid our precious plans were anyway, even if we told ourselves otherwise. The flames take it all, and by the time they die down, I’m ready for tomorrow. l

Alice O'Keeffe's novel On The Up is published by Coronet. She is a literary critic and former arts editor of the New Statesman. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe, or on Instagram as @aliceokeeffebooks.

This article appears in the 03 April 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special

The Manor

A new poem by Simon Armitage.

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What a prize prick he’s made of himself,
trudging a dozen furlongs across the plain

to the widowed heiress’s country estate
just to be turned away at the lodge, to stare

from the wrong side of the locked gates.
The plan – admit it – was to worm his way in:

to start as a lowly gofer and drudge, then rise
from gardener to footman to keeper of hawks –

her hooded merlin steady on his wrist –
to suddenly making his way upstairs after dark,
 
now soaping her breasts in the roll-top bath
with its clawed gold feet, now laying a trail
 
of soft fruit from her pillow to his, his tongue
now coaxing the shy nasturtium flower of love.
 
Here he is in the dream, gilt-framed, a gent
in her late husband’s best brown suit,

the loyal schnauzer gazing up at his eyes.
And here’s the true him tramping the verge,
 
frayed collar and cuffs, brambles for hair,
the toes of his boots mouthing like grounded fish.
 
A pride of lions roams the walled parkland
between this dogsbody life and the next.

Simon Armitage is the poet laureate. This poem is included in Lives of Houses edited by Kate Kennedy and Hermione Lee, newly published by Princeton University Press. 

This article appears in the 03 April 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special